Emily in Samoa: a Fiafia, a Fale, a Fresh Dose of Zika

Our host mothers await our turn at the fiafia

Our host mothers await our turn at the fiafia

 

Do you ever have a feeling that your whole life has been leading up to a single event? That everything you have learned, practiced, and hoped for may culminate in a single night? Maybe it’s a graduation ceremony, a wedding, a race…or maybe you are dressed in feathers and leis, with makeup smeared on your cheeks, surrounded by village women in a Samoan fale.

If you’re not visualizing this moment yet, picture this: myself, dressed as aforementioned, seated in the middle of an open building. A group of women sit on the other side, singing traditional songs to the accompaniment of a guitar. Their music stops, and they look expectantly at me and the other students. It’s our turn. Now picture a melodica, bright pink with zigzag designs on the edges. I play a jazz riff, and my friends begin harmonizing to Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog.”

Yes, my life was truly building up to this moment—all my piano lessons, theater camps, high school lectures… They all culminated in this melodica- and lei-filled evening. But allow me to explain how we ended up here.

 

The family gets me ready for the fiafia.

The family gets me ready for the fiafia.

 

The fiafia marks the end of our village stay, and is a noncompetitive dance-off between the students and their host mothers. The entire village comes to watch, cheering constantly regardless of performers’ talent. Between numbers, the mothers put on palagi songs, and drag us onstage individually to dance. Samoan-style dances, to melodies like “Watch Me Whip,” and “Summer Lovin’” from Grease.

The fiafia is not only a good zenith for my life in general, it is also a great end to this week’s adventures. When we were not playing with siblings, relaxing with parents, or going on excursions to gorgeous waterfalls, we immersed ourselves in various aspects of Samoan tradition. We attended a fa’alavelave, and were able to see a plethora of fine mats and cans of corned beef be exchanged in the gift ceremony.

One of the most memorable experiences we’ve had was building an umu, or traditional Samoan fire. With the umu, we participated in activities like making palu sami, a Samoan dish that is made of coconut cream wrapped in breadfruit leaves, wrapped in taro leaves, wrapped in banana leaves, and cooked over a fire. Our meal also featured dishes like beaten octopus, fresh shark, and a sweet pounded breadfruit dessert.

Breadfruit cooks on the umu. Right insert "octopus" caption: beating the octopus

Breadfruit cooks on the umu.

 

Beating the Octopus

Beating the octopus

 

The dish least for the faint of heart was the main attraction: the pig. I now know just how to kill and eviscerate one, though I don’t think I’ll be doing so in the near future.

I suppose the pictures say it all, but this week was an adventure, and we’ve had some experiences that I’d never thought I’d be a part of…the pig especially. And just when I thought there couldn’t be more surprises, I got the biggest one of them all: the Zika virus.

Don’t worry. When you aren’t pregnant, all that results from the virus is exhaustion, followed by a rash that made me look like an ambulatory Chicken Pock. Many people (including one of our directors) have gotten the virus, though I was the first in the village and in the entire SIT program to do so. It caused a bit of a stir, but once we all realized that nothing major was going to happen, we moved on. It’s quite amazing that the media in far-off countries has not been able to do so, but I’m sure it looks much more exciting from thousands of miles away.

So there you have it. I can disembowel a pig, I can play the melodica to meet anyone’s Samoan dance-off needs, and I have hopefully developed some immunity to the newest mosquito-borne sensation. It’s been quite a week!

One of our side trips to the volcanic crater, To Sua

One of our side trips to the volcanic crater, To Sua

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